Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Luminous Edge

Holl, Jefferson and Palladian America
Addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City
Steven Holl Architects

Tectónica 26, 2008, pages 26 - 43, cover

© David Cohn, Tectónica

In his design for the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, Steven Hall has given a new twist to the old problem of how to enlarge a building that, due to its force and integrity, doesn't easily lend itself to enlargement. The museum's imposing original home, a neo-classical temple sculpted out of Indiana limestone, was built between 1927 and 1933 by local architects Wight & Wight, disciples of McKim, Mead & White. The powerful axes of symmetry of its north and south facades project their dominion over the site, an estate previously occupied by the mansion of the museum's principal benefactor, William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915), the owner of The Kansas City Star newspaper.

In contrast to other museum additions that attempt to discretely enlarge the original building, such as London's National Gallery by Venturi Scott Brown, or where the original is overwhelmed and engulfed within a completely new reconfiguration of the institution –the case of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, remodeled in the 1970s by Roche & Dinkeloo Architects, or the recently transformed MoMA—Hall has opted to explore the approach taken by I. M. Pei with his additions to Washington's National Gallery and the Louvre in Paris, where he used the strategy of an underground connection to create a new object –or in this case, a new series of objects—that stands independently of the original building and relates to it through a dialogue of contrasts.
© Roland Halbe

But while Pei developed his designs using triangular geometries that were equivalent, in their precision and elegance, to the academic language of their partners in this dance of contrasts, Holl experiments with broken, intuitive forms that place his design at the formal vanguard of contemporary architectural practice. And while the underground sections of Pei's projects are clearly secondary, and are understood as a limited, functional strategy despite their brilliant use of skylights, in Holl's design, the theme of its partial burial is the key to its conceptual and experiential development. For Holl, "The addition is not an object. We have created a new paradigm, fusing landscape and architecture."

Holl broke with the bases of the 1999 competition to arrive at his solution. While other participants sought to enlarge the original building on its northern elevation, in front of the entry façade, as called for in the brief, Holl proposed a more discrete and respectful site, along the eastern edge of the museum grounds, where he scattered five pavilions or irregular glass lenses across the lawn. The lenses descend in a broken line, like transparent, luminous rocks, across the grounds of the sculpture park that extends from the southern façade.

Natural light pours through these lenses into the new underground galleries, which Holl has organized following a route of gently descending ramps, interrupted by subtle changes in direction and points of rest with views over the landscape and towards Wight and Wight's sober Ionic portico. The disjuncture between the changes in level inside the addition and the changing ground plane above them has a disorienting effect that Holl has compared to the floating, disconnected vistas of traditional oriental landscape paintings (Asian art is one of the museum's strong points). Outside, pathways run between the pavilions to reach corners populated with sculptures, and run across the buried galleries' roofs of earth and grass.

The general layout of Holl's design has a certain relation to the Palladian tradition in North America. On various 17th century colonial plantations, secondary elements –the kitchen, smoke house, or domestic slave quarters, for example—are placed on either side of the main axis of the house on its garden side, following a strict geometric order, and defining an outdoor domestic sphere. One example is Thomas Jefferson's house in Monticello, where two semi-buried galleries define the artificial plane of the garden, and end in two small pavilions that frame the view from the main house towards the Blue Ridge Mountains, which still marked the frontier of colonial settlement in Jefferson's time. Like Jefferson, Holl has organized the glass lenses like a secondary, semi-buried extension of the central building, except that he keeps them away from its powerful central axis of symmetry, so as to organize the route through them in a dramatically different way.

Monticello. Image culled from

The success of the project depends entirely on Holl's handling of the glass lenses and how they treat natural light, two problems that Holl and his team have placed at the center of their investigations. Their concept is to use the lenses to materialize natural light, using this light to mold the interior spaces. The lenses' translucent walls "gather, diffuse and refract light," they remark in the architect's brief. In the daytime, they appear dematerialized, "like blocks of ice," and at night they illuminate the grounds of the museum like enormous lanterns.

The lenses mark a new point of evolution in the development of glass walls, leaving behind the preoccupation of High Tech architecture with the dematerialization of the convention glass curtain wall. Behind Holl's project we find a fascination for abstract, luminous surfaces that would seem to be derived from the domination of the computer screen in contemporary life – the photos showing people staring fixedly and at close range at the surfaces of the lenses are revealing in this regard. In contrast to High Tech's cult of transparency, where the goal of liberating and extending the gaze beyond intermediate barriers was sought, we find ourselves here before the hypnotic effect of luminosity, which converts the building itself into the object of a fixed, absent gaze, and where the relation between inside and outside is less promiscuous and more limited. In the interior spaces, the luminous walls take on a secondary role to the play of light and space. Here Holl returns to the long, tortuous circulation patterns of the Kiasma, a project influenced by Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. Here in Kansas, however, these routes unfold with greater tranquility. The alternation between the exterior views and the glass lenses creates a rhythmic spatial choreography that finds its culmination in the Noguchi courtyard.

In his brief, Holl offers a list of the points of dialogue between the original building and his design, between "the stone and the feather", contrasting the density, opacity and hermetic quality of the first with the lightness, transparency and openness to dialogue with its surroundings of the second. To this list we might add the contrast between the formulaic monumentality of the original building and a more personal and intuitive vision, marked by sensorial intensity and spatial compression. Like Jefferson in Monticello, Wight & Wight's Nelson-Atkins is the design of pioneers, imposing a new order on an existing landscape and with this act erasing its past. Holl's building belongs to a later moment in the development of the North American urban landscape. The apparently virgin territory of the past has become a complex weave of gestures and intentions superimposed over the topography, a palimpsest with many historical layers where, in Holl's interpretation, only a small margin remains free in which one may add a personal, poetic commentary. Nevertheless, from this same position, Holl has managed to reorient our reading of the existing landscape, converting the edge into the new center, dislocated and fragmented, of the contemporary gaze.

Translated from the Spanish by DC
Photos © Andy Ryan, courtesy Steven Holl Architects, unless noted
Plans: Steven Holl Architects